PITTSFIELD -- A quiet, cold, snowy afternoon was transformed into a rollicking celebration of the life and the seemingly endless acts of kindness of the Rev. Willard Durant, the retired pastor of the Price Memorial AME Zion Church.
More than 200 people gathered at the Salvation Army chapel on West Street for the luncheon given in appreciation of Durant's work as a preacher and community activist.
One after another, friends of Durant stood at the pulpit and shared stories of his boundless ability to comfort, counsel and advise them in times of need.
"He is the man every man should aspire to be," proclaimed Pastor Walter Davis.
"He is a wise and caring man and I'm very proud to have him as a mentor and a role model," added Durant's grandson, Seth Carthon.
Yvonne West, one of the event's organizers, called Durant "a pillar of the community -- he has touched many lives. Since I was a little girl he always had a kind word to say, even when he was going through something."
Former Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto recalled that Durant always had time to visit the mayor's office in times of need.
"He was with the civil rights movement before there was a civil rights movement," Ruberto recalled. "He knows that all of us need support and guidance and brotherhood."
"His name is synonymous with good work," added Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi. "His name is synonymous with community activism. He has been a block of granite for this community."
Jack Downing, president and CEO of Soldier On, said he has known Durant since the late 1960s.
"I learned a lot about my God and about myself -- about how to be a man -- from Rev. Willard Durant," Downing said. "When you walked into his house on John Street, you could tell Jesus Christ was there too."
The Rev. Louise Williamson explained how Durant helped her find her calling.
"We have been friends for a long time, we are friends now, and thank God we will still be friends in that heavenly place," she said.
Between testimonials to Durant, there were songs by the Price Memorial AME Zion Church choir, and vocalists Cheryl Taliaferro and Sharron McClain. There was a spiritual dance by Sister Vanessa Slaughter and a performance by the Youth Alive Senior Step Team.
According to Durant's son, Eric Durant, the Rev. Durant was born 78 years ago, the son of a preacher, in Ansonia, Conn. As a young man he met his future bride, Rosemary, in Pittsfield and moved here soon after. They were married for 50 years before her passing three years ago.
He started volunteering in the community nearly at once. Through the years he earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree. Durant was later presented with an honorary doctorate. He served as the pastor at Price Memorial AME Zion Church for 30 years before retiring. Both Willard and Rosemary Durant served as co-directors of the Christian Center for 18 years. He now serves as pastor at Soldier On.
Through it all, he was there to lend an ear to anyone, anytime.
"Our phone rang off the hook everyday," recalled Eric Durant. "He was there for everybody. The greatest thing the Lord gave him was the talent to touch everybody."
One of the people he was able to reach was Paula Kelsey of Adams.
"Whenever we had a problem, we went to Rev. Durant," she said. "He has always been there for us. He is our heart."
After the speeches were made, the songs sung and the dancing was over, Durant settled in at the head table for a lunch prepared by volunteers from Soldier On.
"This is an overwhelming experience," he said. Through all his efforts, he added, he was always aware that "when you reach out to change somebody's life, they're changing your life, too."
To reach Scott Stafford:
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